The New Exploratorium on the Embarcadero

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San Francisco’s famous Exploratorium – the museum of science, art, and human perception founded by physicist Frank Oppenheimer (brother of J. Robert Oppenheimer) in 1969 – has a new home that opened officially on April 17, 2013.

The New Exploratorium on the Embarcadero

Formerly housed at the landmark Palace of Fine Arts, it has moved to Piers 15 and 17 on the Embarcadero near downtown San Francisco. Resting on new piles driven into the bay, the impressive nine-acre setting for this “research and development lab for public learning” couldn’t be more fitting. After all, “embarcadero” means "embarking point," and this is an institution that takes us on a journey of discovery (embarking from what we know, disembarking with new insights...) in the worlds of biology, physics, listening, cognition, and visual perception.

Exploratorium's Barn-inspired Plan 888-2 concept sketch of Exploratorium's interior

Pier 15 is now a machine for peering into existence! Here’s the way the pier looked before the retrofit and expansion by EHDD Architects, award-winning designers of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, among many great projects. (Think of it as a picture of the mind when inspiration is about to strike!) The idea was to rebuild and strengthen the structure while inserting new infrastructure, display galleries, classrooms, and offices.

George Cogan, chairman of the Exploratorium's board of directors, gave the tour when only a few exhibits were in place, but it was hard not to get caught up in his enthusiasm, especially when he talked about exhibits and devices “that make the invisible visible” (my kind of concept!). Examples ranged from finding out what’s actually in the water of the bay to seeing how much a skyscraper like the Transamerica Pyramid Center (visible from the glass “observatory” shown in the conceptual view below) sways in a high wind or an earthquake. The Exploratorium campus is organized as a series of galleries along the axis from city to bay: you are pulled inexorably toward the water, which is itself a key exhibit.

The New Exploratorium on the Embarcadero

The Exploratorium's stated goal is LEED gold and net-zero energy. Even the building’s environmental systems are exhibit-worthy: the Exploratorium will generate its own energy through photovoltaics and heat transfer systems with bay water (the latter pump array is shown below at left). I was particularly struck by the great, round lens/eye between one gallery and another concourse, which seemed to capture what the Exploratorium is all about: focusing your gaze so that you see the world in new ways or as if for the first time. It made me think of a line in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, when the Egyptian queen, lamenting Mark Antony’s death, says: “His face was as the heavens; and therein stuck/A sun and moon; which kept their course, and lighted/The little O, the earth.” Indeed, the new Exploratorium makes the earth both smaller and larger – but luckily without the loss of a lover or the fall of an empire.

Environmental systems Round lens/eye between one gallery and another concourse

The phrase “making the invisible visible” is suggestive in many ways, and naturally, houses floated into my consciousness. So I thought, where in a house is perception enhanced? That is, without benefit of flat screen, iPad, or smart phone. I vote for the porch at some quiet, even meditative, moment in the day, when it’s possible to drink in the stillness and concentrate on patterns in nature, near and far. Some designs, like Nick Lee’s Ranch House Plan 888-2, or his newest, Barn-inspired Plan 888-2 , encourage such moments. I guess I’m saying that every house should have a place where the world around us can make the imagination soar.

For more on porches click here.

Nick Lee’s Ranch House Plan 888-2 Barn-inspired Plan 888-2

Dan Gregory

Daniel P. Gregory is Editor-in-Chief of, the largest online source of architectural house plans. The author of Cliff May and the Modern Ranch House (Rizzoli, 2008) as well as numerous articles on California architecture for magazines and books, Dan holds a Ph. D. in architectural history from U. C. Berkeley.

At he has developed an expanding collection of exclusive plans by award-winning architects from across the country and around the world, from Not So big House author/architect Sarah Susanka to Melbourne modernist Leon Meyer. His weekly blog Eye On Design covers home news and trends.

Before joining he was Senior Home Editor of Sunset Magazine, where he ran the AIA-Sunset Western Home Awards Program, helped develop the Sunset Breezehouse prefab by Michelle Kaufmann, and served as editorial director for the magazine’s Idea House Program.

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